Thursday, March 5, 2015

"What ISIS Really Wants", Graeme Wood

This is a lengthy piece in The Atlantic.

I haven't read most of the pieces that claim to set out "what ISIS really wants", so I can't say if this one is better or worse, more or less convincing than the others. What I can say is that it reinforces my suspicion that, contrary to the simplistic attitudes of many in this country, simply flattening everything in the territory claimed by the so-called Islamic State wouldn't end the group's ideological threat. Its apocalyptic creed resonates with "a certain subset of the population", as Wood notes, and as he might have added but didn't, apocalyptic creeds have a long and ugly history. What most of those creeds haven't had are enough members and resources to put up a stiff fight, the ability to spread their message worldwide (thanks to the Internet), and the mission to spread their gospel or die. Whatever else we may think of the group, it's a pioneer of sorts.

It's also a group that can't be fought on ideological grounds by most of the world. The only ones who can discredit its poisonous creed are Muslims. The rest of us, by definition, are infidels to whom it's positively dangerous for devout Muslims to listen on spiritual and religious matters. Even Muslims can't "cure" current ISIS adherents: they can only try to keep one another from falling victim to its ideology.

Wood points out that ISIS' true believers are ready to be slaughtered if need be: a slaughter of Muslims is part of the divine plan that will lead to a completely Muslim world. This bothered the hell out of me until I remembered that Christians have a similar end-of-days model in the Book of Revelation, a story that laid the groundwork for a lot of bloodshed in the past. Somehow, though, Christianity shook itself out of its obsession with "convert, kill or die" as a guiding principle, and the Bible became for most (though hardly all) a moral touchstone rather than a divine road map.

It's too easy to believe an "Islamic Reformation" is all that needs to happen because "it worked for Christianity". A little thought reveals the idea of an Islamic Reformation is a waste of time. For one thing, the Christian Reformation didn't put an end to all of Christianity's problematic ideas: if it had, we wouldn't have apocalyptic rhetoric showing up in many fundamentalist churches on a regular basis. For another, Islam isn't locked into a single hierarchy of authority: there is no Islamic Pope against whom to rebel. If you think your Islamic religious authority is wrong, you can already pick a different one.

We're never going to be rid of end-times obsession: a small fraction of humanity will always be fascinated by it. We're never going to be rid of ISIS' creed: "the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it". All we can do is to do a much better job of keeping young people from being so alienated from society that an apocalyptic creed fires their imagination.

And as long as ISIS embraces its uncompromising "convert, enslave, kill or die" credo ("enslave" per Wood's article), I don't see that the rest of us have a choice: we have to give its fighters the martyr's death they want. It sucks, but if the alternative is enslavement or conversion, so be it. Western civilization can't coexist with a creed that detests the very idea of pluralism and is willing to kill to spread itself.

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